At Arlington National Cemetery, military funeral includes social distance, face masks: PHOTOS

The changes are part of "modified" military funeral honors at the cemetery.

April 16, 2020, 4:10 PM

On the rolling hills of Virginia's Arlington National Cemetery, a group of soldiers stood on either side of Command Sgt. Maj. Robert Belch's casket, the American flag draped over the wooden box.

In the distance among rows of white marble headstones, a bugler in uniform played "Taps."

It's a scene that plays out in one of the country's oldest national cemeteries about two dozen times a day: soldiers with the Army's Old Guard conducting military funeral honors for the nation's veterans with impeccable discipline.

But this scene was different.

Given current health protection guidance from the Defense Department, Old Guard Soldiers wear face coverings to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 while executing the Memorial Affairs mission at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Va., April 14, 2020.
Given current health protection guidance from the Defense Department, Old Guard Soldiers wear face coverings to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 while executing the Memorial Affairs mission at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Va., April 14, 2020.
Elizabeth Fraser/Arlington National Cemetery

In the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic, these soldiers wore black face masks. And when the American flag was presented to Belch's son, the soldier was socially distanced -- 6 feet away from the small group of relatives who also donned face masks.

The changes are part of what Arlington National Cemetery is calling "modified" military funeral honors -- a way for the Army to continue holding funerals while also keeping soldiers and families safe.

PHOTO: A soldier assigned to 1st Battalion, 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment presents the U.S. flag to Robert Belch (third from left seated) during the funeral of his father at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Va., April 14, 2020.
A soldier assigned to 1st Battalion, 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment presents the U.S. flag to Robert Belch (third from left seated) during the funeral of his father, U.S. Army Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Robert M. Belch, in Section 68 of Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Va., April 14, 2020.
Elizabeth Fraser/Arlington National Cemetery

When the cemetery first announced on March 27 that it was making changes to military funerals due to the pandemic, families were offered the chance to reschedule their service for a later date.

But many funerals have continued over the last several weeks, including that of Belch who died on Jan. 17 at the age of 97.

PHOTO:  Soldiers assigned to 1st Battalion, 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) conduct modified military funeral honors for U.S. Army Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Robert M. Belch at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia, April 14, 2020.
Soldiers assigned to 1st Battalion, 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) conduct modified military funeral honors for U.S. Army Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Robert M. Belch in Section 68 of Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia, April 14, 2020.
Elizabeth Fraser/Arlington National Cemetery

Belch, a 26-year Army veteran, was a combat engineer with the 42nd Infantry, 142nd Combat Engineer Battalion, Rainbow Division. A decorated veteran of World War II, he earned several commendations including the Legion of Merit, according to the Army.

Belch was also one of the first 192 soldiers to wear the rank of command sergeant major when it was created.

Soldiers assigned to 1st Battalion, 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) conduct modified military funeral honors for U.S. Army Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Robert M. Belch in Section 68 of Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Va., April 14, 2020.
Soldiers assigned to 1st Battalion, 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) conduct modified military funeral honors for U.S. Army Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Robert M. Belch in Section 68 of Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Va., April 14, 2020.
Elizabeth Fraser/Arlington National Cemetery

He is survived by his two sons, six grandchildren, six great grandchildren, and one great, great grandchild, according to his obituary in The Winchester Star.

While Arlington National Cemetery is closed to the public, families with loved ones buried there can visit between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. They are asked to practice social distancing, gather in groups of less than 10 people and wear face coverings in order to mitigate the spread of the virus.

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